Where are You? Our question for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah
If you have noticed, we have some yellow banners up on the corner at Fountain with the question, “Where are you?” Our pitch line, if you saw it, is” Be here with friends.” I hope, indeed, that as you sit here, you truly feel that you are with us here among friends.
However, I must admit that this pitch line was not originally to pitch High Holy seats. It goes way, way back, to the dawn of human consciousness.
To get into this theme, I want to tell first you the story of courage. It is told of a wealthy, wealthy billionaire, that bought a palatial estate, and invited all his friends and acquaintances to see his 1500 acre estate, his mansion, and the largest, most gigantic swimming pool imaginable. However, he had it filled with alligators.
He turned to his guests:" Dear Friends, I have discovered that I was able to acquire my wealth only through courage, only through the guts to take on impossible challenges. I prize courage so greatly, that I challenge any one of you. If you have the guts to jump in and swim across, and get out alive, through my alligators, I will give you anything you want--my house, my ranch, money."
The guests stood in absolute silence, astonished, and then, all proceded to the house for lunch. Suddenly, they heard a splash, and looked back to the pool, to see one of their company swimming straight across the pool.
The billionaire was astonished. He pulled the fellow out, wrapped him in his towel, shook his hands, and said. "Amazing! I am a man of my word. What courage! What bravery! Tell me what ever you want and I will give it to you."
The fellow stood there chattering and said," Tell me, who was the dumb idiot that pushed me into the pool."
A little cynical perhaps. However, our response to the question “ Where are you?” assumes that each and every one of us can actually take a stance and not wait till we get pushed into action by forces beyond our control.
Rosh Hashanah, by tradition, is associated with the creation of the world. 5777, if we count the days in the Torah exactly, I always add the caveat, ”plus minus some several billion years. However, 5777 years is a very accurate date from the start of human written recorded history, and it was recorded for the very first time in the region in which the Biblical Adam lived.
Our question then, “ Where are you” reflects the first question ever asked in written records. Adam and Eve have failed a simple command, “ Don’t eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We have the first recorded account of human failing. Then, Adam and Eve hide. We now have the first human record of lying low, keeping a low profile so as not to be found out. That is when the first question of humanity is asked,” Where are you?”
We now have the first human record of waffling, fabricating, weaseling, of shifting the blame. This is moral cowardice of the first degree. 5777 years later, and we humans still give the same answer. Do we have a better answer?
In the Torah account, 20 generations go by till there is someone ready to give a different answer. That is in our Torah reading of these two days. Abraham does not need the question; he has the answer. God calls his name, and he responds, “ Hineni”, “Here I am.”
There is one thing that Jews understood, throughout the ages—that life, reality, makes demands of us, demands that are no less than the demand to offer up Isaac on the altar. Our teachers and their followers understood that to be a Jew was to be up on the altar, to be on the Akedah, to stand at the edge, for the sake of what was right and sacred. The answer to “Where are you?” is “Hineni.” It is to stand at the transition from child to adult. It is the heroic stance in life.
So, who is the true hero?
I am personally, highly impacted by the experience of the Holocaust. Both my parents survived, my father, in exile in the Soviet Union, my mother, by passing herself as a Pole in Warsaw. I have found, that over the years, that fact of Jewish history has shaped me and continues to shape me.
From time to time, I go back to my father’s papers and writings. There is one, published sixty years ago, written less than a year after the fall of Hitler, with the Title: Hero or Saint?
He looked looked at the history of heroism among the Jewish people. We don’t need to look at the Israeli army of the past decades for example. There is the obvious, the stories of the Macabees at Chanukah, of Bar Kochba taking on the Roman Empire.
Even in later ages, when we had been taught that Jews were meek and timid, we stood on the front lines, through the Crusades, the Chmielnicki massacres, into the past century when Jews served in numbers beyond their proportion in population in the allied forces during World War II.
Then, he went on:
“Our tradition and our history books ignore this fact. Physical heroism, the cult of the hero, is unknown in Jewish tradition.
"The glorification of might, the veneration of power, do not belong to the way of the Jew, even when it is in the service of such legitimate causes as the defense of the persecuted and oppressed.
“Honoring only physical heroism is strange to us, because this honor goes hand in hand with physical strength and power, and the devil, too, can do the same. The criteria for heroism in Judaism is not in conquering the enemy, but in conquering one's self, for it is greater than conquering foreign countries,something identified with raw power and stained with blood. Therefore, the traditional history of the Jews saw the leading Jewish personalities as greater than heroes, and called them "Rabbenu "our teachers--and Zaddik-Righteous.
“Our will is set, since antiquity, towards peace and our dream is so vastly different from the military culture of Prussia and knights in armor." Great is peace, for it is for the sake of peace that the Torah, God's teachings were given, to bring peace to the world, as it says: All her paths are paths of pleasantness, and all her ways are peace."
The Bible, our foundation book, is filled with military heroes, yet we remember them for much more.
Abraham is ready to fight for the oppressed, and goes out to war. But he is a hero, because he is ready to quarrel with God for what is right.
Jacob fights with an angel but makes peace with his brother.
Moses strikes down a slave master, but is chosen because he is a tender shepherd.
The villain is the man of force, the one for whom the expression of power is paramount.
The hero then, is the hero of the will to do just, the moral hero.
Do we not have any heroes anymore?
It’s not a new lament
The prophet Ezekiel lamented the lack of courageous figures in his day, not military figures, not soldiers, but moral heroes. There was no one “haomed baperetz”, no who was able to stand in the breach of the walls to defend his people, not against invading armies, but against injustice and corruption. And even take a stand against God.!
The German playwright, Berthold Brecht, fifty years ago, wrote " Woe to the country that has no heroes", to which he then replied, "Woe to the country that needs a hero". His country, he knew, had found its hero, its Adolph Hitler. The rest, we know, were merely following orders.
Today, we have the celebrity, and the celebrity, basically, does whatever he or she wants.
We used to live next to a video store in this neighborhood. One day, dozens of cars appeared, the street was full of paparazzi, and then many, many police cars. What was the fuss all about?, I asked one of the policemen.
Paris Hilton, who was awaiting arraignment, had to return a video to the store. The police had to accompany her and so did the paparazzi. “
He summed up, “ Instead of protecting you from criminals, I have to protect you from Paris Hilton!”
That is the world of celebrity.
Don't we have any heroes anymore?
There are real heroes in the world. They just don’t make it to the covers on the magazine racks in the supermarket line.
It has been 15 years since Sept. 11, of 2001, when 346 firefighters died trying to save the trapped victims of the Twin Towers. In the intervening years since, thousands of American soldiers, volunteers all, have been killed or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But just as there is heroism in facing death, there is heroism in facing life.
I made mention of the survivors of the Holocaust. This congregation has been home to many. One of our veteran members, Joe Alexander, survived almost every concentration camp in Europe. Alex Satmary spent the war as a slave of the Hungarian army and then as a Prisoner of War in the Soviet Union. Another leader here in the past, Harry Kotler,z”l hid his family in a ditch underground, and went out, day by day, from his hiding place, to forage for food for them in the open and return to save them. Another leader here, Max Cuckier, z”l had been a head of a partisan force. Frances Mandel, may she live many years, here, with her husband, Jack Mandel, of blessed memory, would have parties here to raise funds for programs in Israel, and all these people who had narrowly escaped hell would dance with all their might, right in this ballroom. We had and still have many others such heroes in our midst.
To survive, to say yes to life, under such situations, to have the inner strength to make it from the morning to the night to the next morning again—that is courage, that is heroism. It was carried out by people that we have known who never received any medals of honor.
But just as there is heroism in facing the battlefield, and heroism in choosing life over death in time of horror, there is heroism in day to day life.
So, we have, in our sources, the implicit answer to the question the Rabbis asked question: “Aizeh hu gibor”, who truly is a hero, what do we Jews truly consider to be heroes?
The answer, that they quoted in the words of Ben Zoma, is: Who is mighty?” Aizeh hu Gibor--Hakovesh et yizro.” He who subdues his passions, and the proof, the Rabbi gave was from Proverbs (16:32):
"One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city."
This is in a nutshell what Judaism is trying to bring about in all of us. Warfare of the physical kind is sometimes, necessary, sometimes unavoidable, sometimes morally just and sometimes, it is a mitzvah. But we do not live in warfare all out lives. Our lives, day to day, are without guns and tanks—our lives today are, however, with cars and banks. Rather than raging against Al-Qaeda, most have trouble with rage on the road. A few have to deal with terrorist bombs, but most of us have to deal, on a daily basis, with greed, jealousy, rapacious appetites for food, for lust, for power.
So that is Gibor, a hero, “hakovesh et Yitzro”, who conquers his passions and drives.
It is what the Moslems mystics, the Sufis call, “ the greater jihad”. The real battle, they taught, is not against us infidel Jews or Christians; it is against unbridled infantile desire. If only the heads of Al Qaeda and ISIS would study their own scholars! The world would be so much better.
One of the great works on Jewish law is the Tur, upon which the Shulkhan Arukh is based. These are its opening instructions, upon which all the rest of Jewish law stands:
“ Be as courageous as the leopard, fly high like the eagle, run as swift as the gazelle, and be a strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father in heaven.”
The sage, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, then goes on:
Be as courageous as a leopard. This is the first step to the worship of the Creator, for too often, one is afraid of carrying out his obligations to God because he fears those who would mock him. Thus said Rabbi Yochanan: May you fear God as much as you fear people.
Rabbi Meir was once asked ," Why did we Jews deserve to get the Torah." His answer was," We were" Azim"--we were brave. A courageous people deserved to receive God's word, and a courageous people could survive centuries of persecution. We are the spiritual and moral descendants of Abraham. Just as Abraham answered the call of God with, Hineni, Here I am, so may we be ready to answer the call in life, to make the right and just and necessary decisions in our lives. Amen